Who Was Deborah Sampson? The True Story of the Woman Who Dressed as a Man to Fight for America's Freedom

Donning the fake name and a uniform she stitched herself, Deborah Sampson posed as a man to enlist in the fight for freedom.

Donning the fake name and a uniform she stitched herself, Deborah Sampson posed as a man to enlist in the fight for freedom.

By any account, Robert Shurtleff’s time serving in George Washington’s Continental Army during the American Revolution is a story at which to be marveled.

Shurtleff spent 17 months fighting in an elite unit of the resistance and survived being wounded at least twice, including one close call from which they carried a musket ball with them forevermore.

It was a record of service any man at the time would be proud to call their own. 

And during all this, the Massachusetts soldier was waging another resistance uniquely their own, as Robert Shurtleff was no man at all

Donning the fake name and a uniform she stitched herself, Deborah Sampson posed as a member of the less fair sex to enlist in the fight for freedom. 

Her story has long been the stuff of legends, but scholars say the recent discovery of a diary written by one of Sampson’s neighbors will shed light on her true role in the Revolution.

“Deb Sampson, her story is mostly lost to history,’’ Dr. Philip Mead, the chief historian and director of curatorial affairs of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, told The New York Times.

“So, finding a little piece of it is even more important than finding another piece of George Washington’s history.”

Mead spotted the diary of Abner Weston, Sampson’s neighbor in Middleborough, at an antiques show in New Hampshire last summer. The museum bought it for an undisclosed sum and will feature it in a showcase about American women’s roles in the Revolution next year as part of a larger celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Mead said.

Weston wrote in the diary, one of at least three he kept while serving as a corporal in the Massachusetts militia, that Sampson initially tried and failed to enlist in January 1782.

“Their hapend a uncommon affair at this time,” Weston, then 21, wrote Jan. 23, 1782. “For Deborah Samson of this town dress her self in men’s cloths and hired her self to Israel Wood to go into the three years Servis. But being found out returned the hire and paid the Damages.” 

The incident apparently was the talk of the town, but Sampson was undeterred. 

She waited five months and in May 1782 traveled 40 miles to Bellingham, where she became Robert Shurtleff. 

Under her assumed identity, Sampson fought with a Massachusetts company in the Hudson Valley.

And while serving as Shurtleff, Sampson in September 1782 was excommunicated from the Baptist church, with elders saying their decision was made because of her dressing in men’s clothes — a crime in Massachusetts at the time — her enlisting, and other conduct they called “loose and unChristian like.” 

Sampson served until 1783, when she became sick in Philadelphia and a doctor discovered her secret.

She was honorably discharged, and several months later, the war ended. 

After the war, Sampson married a Massachusetts farmer and had a family. She also fought Congress for backpay she was owed for her wartime service, a 15-year long undertaking in which she was assisted by Paul Revere and John Hancock.

“I have no doubt your humanity will prompt you to do all in your power to gift her some relief,” Revere wrote to a member of Congress in support of a military pension for Sampson. 

In 1982, the Massachusetts legislature proclaimed her the official state heroine and declared May 23 "Deborah Sampson Day."

Further details of Sampson’s time as a soldier had thought to be lost to history, but Weston’s diary has provided clarity on where and when she served, including the likelihood she did not fight in the Battle of Yorktown, as she had claimed. 

“If you really want to put her at Yorktown, you could start stretching it, but that sounds like pretty strong evidence that she probably wasn’t there,’’ Dr. David Osborn, site manager of historic St. Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon, told the Times.

But Sampson was not unique in placing herself at a battle with name recognition and the diary’s undermining her account of serving there does not take away from the significance of her service, filmmaker Ken Burns said. 

“She clearly bled for the cause,” he told the Times. “It becomes super-important that we don’t impose modern sensibilities on what this speaks.”